Handel / Water Music / Academy of Ancient Music


This original looking Purple Label L’Oiseau-Lyre (Decca) English pressing has some of the best sound we have yet heard for a period instrument recording. There are many good qualities that will recommend this pressing to audiophiles and music lovers alike. The group is smaller and more sprightly than most we heard, the hall they record in has wonderful sound that fits the music perfectly (not too reverberant, and not too dead), and, most importantly, the character of each of the instruments seems to come through in the recording more clearly; their “colors”, so to speak, appear to our ears to be more intense.

This is a lovely quality in a record. Years ago, fifteen I would guess, I remember playing a Telarc recording and noticing that every instrument had a “grayish” color to its sound. Since that day I have never been able to take a Telarc recording seriously. (CDs suffer from this sound even more.)

An Overview

The modern version of The Water Music contains three separate suites, referred to as Suite No. I, Suite No. 2 and Suite No. 3, each of which is in a different key, and each of which makes use of different instrumentation. Suite No. 1 is the one that will be most familiar to you, 2 and 3 quite a bit less so. Click on the Water Music tab above to read more about the work.

On this record, 9 of the 11 movements in Suite No. 1 are on side one.

Side One

A++ to A+++, nearly White Hot, and mostly Hard To Fault (HTF). It’s clear and transparent, with just the right amount of hall ambience. There is some Tubey Magic on this side (not so much on side two), with the only real fault being a bit more compression than we would have liked (which may be where the Tubey Magic comes from).

The sound is right for a smaller group — not too intimate, yet not in danger of the music being drowned in a too-large hall. Few recordings on this label achieve that balance in our experience.

Side Two

A++, big and clear, with good bottom end definition and weight. A bit smoother than side one, with a slight smear, this side actually has more of a “live music” sound in many ways. It’s less tubey and warm, and it should be noted that both of those qualities are not actually found to any great degree in live music. We like those qualities on our records just as much as the next guy, but to be honest they are best recognized as euphonic colorations, not the true sound of live unamplified music in performance.

LA Phil Background on The Water Music

The Water Music dates from Handel’s first years in England, where he arrived in 1710, officially on leave from recent employment in the Elector of Hanover’s court. He returned again in 1712 and stayed permanently after ingratiating himself with Queen Anne, who awarded him a lifetime pension of 200 pounds a year — enough to live on. In 1714, the Elector of Hanover became George I of England on Anne’s death and, far from showing displeasure with his ex-employee, doubled Handel’s royal pension.
Indeed, Handel was faring better than the king was. George, who never learned to speak English and brought with him a German inner circle and two German mistresses, was roundly disliked as a foreigner more interested in Hanover than in England. His way of softening the English power structure’s harsh, if essentially accurate, view of him was to entertain it with barge parties.

We know there were royal parties on the Thames in the summers of 1715, 1716, and 1717. Handel probably provided music for those occasions, but the only account that actually mentions him is a letter from Friedrich Bonet, a Prussian diplomat, describing a party on July 17, 1717:

At about eight in the evening the King repaired to his barge. Next to the King’s barge was that of the musicians, about 50 in number – trumpets, horns, oboes, German [i.e, transverse] flutes, French flutes [i.e. recorders], violins, and basses, but no singers. The music had been composed specially by the famous Handel, a native of Halle and his Majesty’s principal court composer. His Majesty’s approval of it was so great that he caused it to be played three times in all, twice before and once after supper, even though each performance lasted an hour. The evening was as fine as could be desired for this occasion and the number of barges and boats full of people wanting to listen was beyond counting.

Though Bonet’s account describes the length and instrumentation of the Water Music more or less as we know it today, the earliest surviving score of “the celebrated Water Musick” dates from the 1730s, after Handel had been using the music in his theatrical presentations just as he used concertos, likely making changes for those occasions as was his practice. As we now know it, the Water Music consists of the two suites on this program – the “horn” suite in F and the “flute” suite in G – and a “trumpet” suite in D.
Typically for Handel, the suites don’t fit any particular mold. The G-major Suite consists of movements that are dances in all but name (Handel did not give them all titles). The F-major Suite is a sort of extended modified French suite, with a stately Lullian beginning to its Overture and some dance movements interspersed with non-dance movements. Handel’s striking use of the horns would have been all the more remarkable in 1717, when horns were rare in orchestras. As far as anyone knows, neither Handel nor any English composer had used horns before, but they have a more prominent role in the Water Music than the solo violins in the concerto that opens this program.

All Music Guide

Christopher Hogwood is one of the most prominent conductor of period-instrument performances of Classical and Baroque music. He studied classical literature in addition to music at Pembroke College, Oxford, where he obtained a bachelor’s degree in 1964. His harpsichord instructors were Rafael Puyana and Gustav Leonhardt. Leonhardt, the British harpsichordist Thurston Dart, and conductor Raymond Leppard, all prominent in early music research and performance, influenced Hogwood’s career path. The British Council gave him a scholarship, enabling him to spend a year in Prague at the Charles University and the Prague Academy of Music.

In 1967 David Munrow and Hogwood co-founded the Early Music Consort to undertake authentic performances of medieval music. Munrow’s approach attracted fans and raised eyebrows. The performances were lively, with driving dance rhythms, and the group began to record extensively.

In 1973 Hogwood founded the Academy of Ancient Music, taking its name from a London music society and orchestra of the eighteenth century. Hogwood’s group was the first British ensemble formed to play music of the Baroque and early Classical periods on original instruments, a more lightly elegant specialty than that of Munrow’s group. The AAM quickly became one of the most popular and influential organizations in the “authentic performance” movement. (Hogwood now prefers the less confrontational term “historically informed performance” to “authentic.”) They record frequently on Decca’s imprint L’Oiseau-Lyre and have forged forward into High Classicism, releasing complete sets of Mozart and Haydn symphonies. Hogwood’s interpretations are instantly recognizable, with a restrained, technically perfect style that diverged fundamentally from the glittering Baroque performances that were the norm.

Leave a Reply